Making a private or public environment comfortable and functional for individuals who are blind or visually impaired should be part of universal design that will benefit all users of a facility, whether it is a workplace, a museum, a senior center, or a home.
Making facilities and programs and activities safe and accessible for older participants who are blind or visually impaired does not necessarily require a great deal of time, energy, or money. It is a matter of knowing the basics and planning for easy access during the initial design of the facility and its programs.
The use of lighting, color contrast, and the reduction of glare are important factors architects and interior designers must be aware of for effective environmental design.
The suggestions below can be used to conduct an initial assessment of the environment. A vision rehabilitation professional can provide further assistance in assessing the environment and making recommendations for changes to enhance safe and independent functioning, and active participation. Here are the primary environmental elements needed for persons who are visually impaired to be able to function independently in any environment.
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- In recreation and reading areas, provide plenty of floor lamps and table lamps.
- Advise people who are visually impaired that light should always be aimed at the work they are doing, not at the eyes.
- Replace burned out light bulbs regularly.
- Place mirrors so that lighting doesn’t reflect off them and create glare.
- For window coverings, use adjustable blinds, sheer curtains, or draperies, because they allow for the adjustment of natural light.
- Keep a few chairs near windows for reading or doing hand crafts in natural light.
- Arrange furniture in small groupings so that people can converse easily.
- Make sure there is adequate lighting near furniture.
- When purchasing new furniture, select upholstery with texture when possible. Texture provides tactile clues for identification.
- Use brightly colored accessories, such as vases and lamps, to make furniture easier to locate.
- Avoid upholstery and floor covering with patterns. Stripes and checks can create confusion for people who are visually impaired.
Elimination of Hazards
- Replace worn carpeting and floor covering.
- Tape down or remove area rug.
- Remove electrical cords from pathways, or tape down for safety.
- Do not wax floors; use nonskid, non-glare products to clean and polish floors.
- Keep desk chairs and table chairs pushed in.
- Move large pieces of furniture out of the main traffic areas.
- If telephone booths protrude into main traffic areas, have them moved.
Use of Color Contrast
- Place light objects against a dark background, a dark table near a white wall, for example, or a black switchplate on a white wall.
- Install doorknobs that contrast in color with doors for easy location.
- Paint the woodwork of the door frame a contrasting color to make it easier to locate.
- Mark the edges of all steps and ramps with paint or tape of a highly contrasting color
- Place all signs at eye level, with large lettering according to specifications outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
- Provide braille signage according to ADA specifications.
- Mark emergency exits clearly.
- When making signs by hand, use a heavy black felt-tip pen on a white, off-white, or light yellow, non-glossy background.
- Provide some telephones with large print key pads or dials.
- Provide telephone amplifiers which increase the level of sound.
These basic environmental design and safety tips can go a long way toward making a facility a comfortable and accessible environment for persons who are visually impaired, and for everyone else who uses the facility and services. Increasingly, these elements must be incorporated into universal design.
- Experiment with general and local lighting to see which combination works best for you.
- Remove rugs, since they can curl or slip.
- Get rid of any unwanted items to reduce clutter.
- If possible, don’t have patterned carpets.
- Fix extension leads along skirting boards.
- Use a telephone with large numbers.
- Keep emergency numbers in large print next to the telephone, or store them alphabetically in the telephone’s memory buttons.
- Make it a habit to keep internal doors completely open or completely shut.
- If your bathroom walls are light-coloured, choose dark-coloured towels for contrast.
- Install grab rails in the bath and shower.
- Use a chain to attach the bathplug to the tap.
- Use soap-on-a-rope, or tie soap inside a stocking and hang the stocking from the grab rail.
- Lay non-slip mats inside the bath and shower.
- Electric shavers are safer and easier to use than razors.
- Nail clippers and nail files are safer and easier to use than scissors.
- Cut any low-hanging tree branches.
- Line pathways with contrasting colour strips.
- Orient yourself by using reference markers such as trees and ornaments.
- Pad the tops of garden stakes.
- Install irrigation systems to avoid the need to water the garden by hand.
- Always coil the garden hose after use.
- Use kitchen cutters rather than knives to open packets.
- Twist open stubborn jar lids wearing rubber gloves, or use a handheld jar opener, rather than trying to loosen the lid under hot running water.
- Wash knives with a long-handled brush.
- Use aids to cut foods, such as cheese slicers, egg slicers and tomato slicers.
- Put saucepans on the stove before turning on the burners.
- Make it a habit to turn saucepan handles away from you, to prevent accidental knocks.
- Use fire retardant oven mitts and keep a fire prevention blanket in the kitchen.
Tea, coffee and other hot drinks
- Don’t use fingers to feel for the level of boiling water inside a cup. The right amount of boiling water in a cup can be indicated by an electronic device called a ‘liquid-level indicator’ that beeps when the water level reaches the prongs.
- Fill the teapot with cold water, then pour this pre-measured amount into the kettle to boil.
- Heat a cup of cold water in the microwave and add coffee or tea afterwards.
- For contrast, use dark-coloured cups for light liquids and light-coloured cups for dark liquids.
- Put a funnel inside the cup when pouring water to better direct the flow.
- Keep the clothesline above head-height and pad the corners.
- To reduce the risk of burns when ironing, use cotton gloves and always locate the iron by feeling along the electrical cord.
- Distinguish between different medications with large print labels or use tactile markings or brightly coloured tags.
- Use a pill holder with separate compartments for the different days of the week and ask your chemist to fill it for you.
- Mark common dosage levels on medicine cups.
- Pills in blister packs are easier to dispense than pills stored loosely inside a bottle.
Hallways and Stairways
- In hallways, make sure that lighting is uniform throughout.
- Place drinking fountains and fire extinguishers along one wall only throughout hallways to allow individuals who are visually impaired to trail the other wall without encountering obstacles.
- Install grab bars where they may be needed.
- Light stairwells clearly.
- Make certain that stairway railings extend beyond the top and bottom steps.
- Mark landings in a highly contrasting color.
Low Vision Doctors And Organizations
Low vision doctors specialize in helping patients retain their independence by prescribing special visual aids that make it easier to perform many activities that a normally sighted person can perform. These low vision devices help make the best use of the remaining vision you have, and include magnifiers, glasses, telescopes and electronic devices.
Other options for reading might include large print materials, audio books and Braille. There also are apps for phones and tablet computers that can help you read more easily if you are visually impaired.
Here is a partial list of organizations that provide information and services for the visually impaired, people with low vision and the blind:
Envision is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life and provide inspiration for the blind and visually impaired through employment, outreach, rehabilitation, education and research. Envision also promotes advocacy and independence for those who are blind or partially sighted. Founded in 1933 in Wichita, Kansas, Envision is one of the largest employers of individuals with vision loss in the nation. You can learn more about Envision at www.envisionus.com.
The National Library Service (NLS) for the Blind and Physically Handicapped is one of the largest resources for adapting printed material for use by people who are visually impaired or blind. Through a national network of cooperating libraries, NLS administers a free library program of Braille and audio materials to eligible borrowers in the United States via postage-free mail. Learn more atwww.loc.gov/nls/.
The American Council of the Blind (ACB) is one of the nation’s largest membership organizations for the blind and visually impaired. ACB has affiliate offices in nearly every state and in the District of Columbia. Learn more at www.acb.org/state-affiliates.
The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is an advocacy and service group for the blind and visually impaired that has more than 50,000 members. NFB has offices in every state and has local chapters in many communities. Learn more at www.nfb.org.
VisionAware is a free, easy-to-use website sponsored by the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) and Reader’s Digest Partners for Sight Foundation. It offers a robust state-by-state directory of services for the visually impaired. Learn more at www.visionaware.org.